And so it was that recently I took part in the People Managements webinar entitled Social Media: Opportunity or Danger?  Expertly facilitated by PM’s Editor in chief Rob McLaughlan and Digital Marketing Manager Zoe Bearne. I was one of three ‘speakers’, the other two being Al Shah, Social Media Demand Manager for GlaxoSmithKline and Lucy Turner, an independent HR Consultant.

When you look at it, the title of the webinar says it all really doesn’t it? "Opportunity or Threat" really sums up where the HR function and organisations are in general with Social Medai – still undecided, nervous and unsure largely how to manage it, use it or embrace it, especially internally.  This was the crux of my presentation.  In my work as a consultant, I’m helping companies engage with customers using social and community strategies. For the small but growing number of organisations that are beginning to use social media externally like this (beyond using it as an advertising/broadcast channel) the are seeing and reaping the benefits – increased customer loyalty, trust, openness, feedback, innovation – the list goes on but the overall big deliverable is a significant commercial return through increased engagement.  There’s the magic word – engagement.  That will be the prize all organisations are currently chasing in terms of employees, in a time when we are reminded that engagement levels amongst the rank and file are at an all time low.

Yet, even in these organisations who do ‘get it’ from an external, customer facing perspective, I often find that when you look around inside the organisation, beyond the marketing or customer service functions that are engaging in this way, the attitude to social media takes on a whole different, and more negative turn.  Often, you will find that for employees in other functions access is denied to social media, and or limited to strict viewing times and or overtly ‘policed’.  Here is an example response from one of the webinar attendees that illustrates this beautifully:

"My response to the first question, if it had been available, would have been "we allow use of social media for business use only"

I won’t to go into detail here about the folly of this policing or restriction as it is well covered elsewhere, but it is clear we still largely have not yet grasped that mirroring what some companies are doing externally with customers and applying the same approach INSIDE the organisation with employees could pay huge dividends.  Actually, I would (and do!) argue that in the long term you will fail in your external endeavours with customers if you don’t embrace the same principles internally with employees – you can’t be social on the outside if you are not social on the inside.

The problem, and therefore the barrier, is one of perception in my view. One look at the questions that came in over email during the webinar shows that social media is actually being blamed or observed negatively for things that, actually, have nothing to do with social media. Here is a sample of some of the comments/questions:

"All very well but there are serious legal risks in employees using sm. Bullying and harassment of other employees can mean the employer is liable."

"How do you draft a social media policy so that it does not interfere with productivity at work?"

"What strategies can you identify that ensure that productivity and excellent customer service is maintained?"

"What about time spent in workplace interacting on social media does this impact work flow, output being done?"

Harassment, productivity, service levels and so on.  If these issues are surfacing through social media, then they exist already in your organisation and clearly you are not on top of them. The issue of action also came up in terms of how to handle individual commentary on social media platforms:

"Can we discipline an employee for comment they make on social media about the company or employees?"

Yes of course you can, but you wouldn’t want to.  In November last year  Matthew Hanwell, HR Director, Community & Social Media for Nokia shared a situation that happened on their own internal social collaboration platform.  After a recent change in CEO, one long standing Nokia employee felt compelled to write something along the following lines on the open platform:

"As far as I am concerned the new CEO can shove his strategy up his ***. I demand his immediate resignation."

You might be surprised to know that the employee is still there.  Instead of disciplining the individual, they realised instead that what they had here was an issue that was concerning at least one employee, maybe more and that the appropriate response was to engage with the employee and see why he felt that way and if anything could be done about it.

Of course, this is the kind of stuff that lawyers and other are hyperventilating about and inevitably we had a number of questions or comments warning about the "serious threat" to organisations and HR functions posed by social media. Some though, went just too far, including this gem:

"70% of stalking cases last year had a stalking element"

In the context of the above concerns, social media is purely the messenger.  And we know what happens to messengers in the company of the ill informed don’t we?! However, unlike all other mediums, social media is not only the messenger – it’s actually the ANSWER to many of the issues here.  Forget social media as a term and focus instead on what is going on: conversation, collaboration, transparency and peer to peer connectivity. These are the key. In the same way they can create value for the organisation with customers, they can do so exponentially with employees.  If harnessed properly.  It is these things that can transform your engagement strategy, the way you manage performance, the way you do business. Take it from me, annual employee engagement surveys and performance appraisals have no place in the conversational economy that is emerging and that you, as an organisation, have no control over.

Ultimately, what is going on here is a typical tactical struggle.  As with any major shift, we start by being consumed with the minutia, the tactical, the tools, the technology, largely ignoring the bigger picture.

Social media – Opportunity or Danger? In my mind, both. But not in the way we currently see it and on a much bigger, more strategic and fundamental scale that very few organisations or even HR thought leaders seem to be aware of right now.  More in the next post. 😉

My slides can be found on Slideshare here.

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